Back to Online Examinations Again

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on November 26, 2021 by telescoper

This afternoon teaching staff at Maynooth University were informed of changes to the plans for the January examination session: all examinations will now be held remotely, apart possibly from those for some final-year modules; for the latter the lecturer will decide whether they should be on campus or remote.

It’s worth mentioning that a petition set up recently by the Maynooth University Students Union urging the University to switch exams online attractive over 4,000 signatures.

As I said a while ago I think this is a very sensible move. I was chatting to some students before a lecture earlier today and I think they will all be relieved that a decision has been taken and they can make sensible plans for the Examination Period. I am teaching one module for first-year students and one for second-years this semester so both of these will definitely be going online.

We now have done three full cycles of online examinations since the pandemic started: May 2020, January 2021 and May 2021, plus two sets of repeats. I think we have a pretty good idea what we are doing with them and have got three weeks before the end of term to make any changes to the papers we have written for January. Since the online examinations are effectively open-book tests we tend to exclude bookwork – stating results which the students could easily look up – and concentrate instead on problem-solving tasks. Online examinations done this way are certainly no easier than in-person papers, and emphasize what is probably the most useful skill we try to develop.

I am glad we have some clarity on the examinations. We still have three weeks of teaching to finish before the end of term, though, and no changes have been announced to plans for lectures and tutorials. I told my class this afternoon however that as of Wednesday 8th December I will have exceeded 6 months since my second Pfizer dose. There is very little chance I will get a booster dose by then so I will be working from home from that date until the end of term. That means I’ll be doing three first-year lectures and three second-year lectures from home using my famous blackboard. I explained this decision to my second-year class today and they were supportive.

A Free Online Course in Cosmology from SISSA

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on November 25, 2021 by telescoper

The nice people at the Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati (known to its friends as SISSA for short) have made available a free online course in cosmology. You can get all of it on Youtube.

The course comprises 16 professionally edited video-lectures delivered by lecturers of the SISSA Astrophysical and Cosmology and Astroparticle PhD Programs and some of their collaborators. I know some of the participants personally, including Paulo Salucci (who introduces the course though I haven’t met him in person for ages so it was nice to see him on camera.

Cosmology is a big subject, of course, and a short-ish course can’t cover everything so there is an emphasis on the research topics covered by SISSA scientists. I haven’t watched all the videos but those I have seen are pretty good. There are actually 17 videos in the playlist below but that includes a very short prelude to introduce the series. The others are between about 25 and 45 minutes in length so you probably don’t want to watch them all in one sitting!

Maynooth University Library Cat Update

Posted in Maynooth with tags , on November 24, 2021 by telescoper

It has been some time since I last posted an update about Maynooth University Library Cat. It’s been rather chilly recently and he’s probably been keeping out of the cold somewhere snug. I’m not sure exactly where he goes to stay warm but I’m sure he has some favourite places here and there around campus. He lives outdoors but I’m sure he’s prepared from time to time to venture inside for warmth. On his own terms, of course. He is, after all, a cat.

I did however see him on the way to my 2pm lecture today and he was still on post when I returned an hour or so later. He was looking fluffier than usual, a normal reaction against the cold, but was his usual friendly self when I stopped to give him a stroke. He only sits in the location shown on the picture when he wants a bit of a fuss and/or to be fed. When he’s not in the mood he makes himself scarce!

Incidentally, in the distance, past the Library on the left you can see the new building on the North campus which is nearing completion…

Peppa Pig: An Apology

Posted in Biographical, Education, Politics, Television with tags , on November 24, 2021 by telescoper
Offensive Item

I have over many years been using the item shown above in lectures to demonstrate the properties of spherical surfaces, for example in situations involving vector calculus and in astrophysics. Given recent events, however, I realize that my use of this specific object may cause offence through the possibility that it may be construed as an endorsement of the views of the UK Prime Minister. I would therefore like to make it clear that no such endorsement should be inferred, that I have never visited Peppa Pig World, and that I did not play any part in the writing of Mr Johnson’s speech to the Confederation of British Idiots earlier this week.

I can also confirm that I have now disposed of the above item in an authorised refuse and recycling centre.

I hope this clarifies the situation.

Clusters and Superclusters of Galaxies 1991

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on November 23, 2021 by telescoper

As part of an occasional series of blasts from the past down memory lane of days gone by I present this, which was taken in Cambridge in July 1991 – 30 years ago!!! – at the NATO ASI Clusters and Superclusters of Galaxies:

Picture Credit: Alberto Fernandez Soto

There are no prices for putting names to faces because the names are all along the bottom but it’s still fun to try doing it without looking at the answers!

The Curious Incident of the JWST and the Clamp Band…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 23, 2021 by telescoper

 

Just a quick newsflash to pass on the news that the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope has been pushed back until at least 22nd December 2021 owing to an “incident” that occurred during preparations for its launch.

It seems the sudden release of a “clamp band” – or is it band clamp? – caused unwanted vibrations through the observatory and it now has to be thoroughly checked before it can be declared safe for launch.

This is not the news anyone wanted to hear, but the previous launch date was 18th December, so hopefully the few days’ delay won’t cause too much difficulty.

I was going say that for JWST to work there has to be something incident on its mirror, but on reflection I decided that wasn’t a very good joke.

 

 

Colder Times

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , , , on November 22, 2021 by telescoper

All of a sudden winter is here. Until now the temperature has stayed in double figures but it was much colder yesterday and this morning we had a hard frost. It has barely been above freezing at any point today. It was -2 °C at 7.30pm when I got home from work.

I now wish I’d bought some food for the birds at the weekend as the feeders are empty and I think my little avian visitors need some fuel. At least there are lots of berries around. A wood pigeon visits my garden regularly to feast on them and as a result is now as round as a football and probably too fat to fly.

On the subject of birds, this little chap appeared outside my office window last week. The distinctive red colour on the body doesn’t show up at all in the phone picture but, when combined with the black cap on its head, made me think it was a bullfinch. Bullfinches spend the winter here so maybe I’ll see this one again.

I suddenly thought today that it might be an idea to put some bird feeders in the space outside my office window. It’s enclosed by walls on all sides but open above. It would be a very safe space for birds to feed and it would be nice to encourage a few more avian visitors.

At Day-Close in November by Thomas Hardy

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on November 21, 2021 by telescoper

The ten hours’ light is abating,
And a late bird wings across,
Where the pines, like waltzers waiting,
Give their black heads a toss.

Beech leaves, that yellow the noon-time,
Float past like specks in the eye;
I set every tree in my June time,
And now they obscure the sky.

And the children who ramble through here
Conceive that there never has been
A time when no tall trees grew here,
That none will in time be seen.

by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

Questions of Examinations and Lectures

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on November 20, 2021 by telescoper

The deterioration of the Covid-19 situation in Ireland continues apace, with a 7-day average of new cases currently around 4300 per day and 640 people in hospital with 121 needing intensive care.

No doubt due to vaccination the number of deaths remains mercifully low, just 43 reported last week. Let’s hope that lasts.

We have four more weeks of teaching at Maynooth University this semester after which we have the Christmas break and then, in January, the examination period. The current plan is for the examinations to be of the traditional kind, taken in an exam hall on campus but how long this will indeed be the plan is anyone’s guess.

Here at Maynooth we have been told here that a decision will be taken next Friday (26th November) on whether on-campus examinations will go ahead after Christmas. With just three weeks of the term left at that point, this seems very late. If the decision is taken next week to go ahead and the pandemic continues to deteriorate (which is likely, with a surge in transmission expected over the holiday) then that decision may have to be reversed in January.

The Minister responsible for Higher Education, Simon Harris, has indicated that third-level institutions may have to introduce special mechanisms to help students prevented from attending exams in person by Covid-19.

I really hope this is not going to be interpreted as meaning that we have to offer both online and on campus examinations.

That’s partly because of the workload issue: we’ve already written our examinations on the basis that they will be held in person and would have to write another set and get them ready with just three weeks of the term left. We’ve been landed with heavy increases in workload at short notice before I don’t think I’m the only person to be a bit fed with it. Another issue, is that is fairness. I think it is important that all students should take the same examination in the same way otherwise one group might be disadvantaged relative to the other. It would be fairer simply to allow students who can’t take the on-campus examinations in January to take the August repeat in the usual manner.

It’s not for me to decide, of course, but I think it would be sensible to take the decision immediately to switch to online examinations in January. That way staff and students will know straight away where they stand. If it turns out the pandemic does go as badly over the next two months then this might seem to have been excessively cautious, but what would really be lost? We have done three examination periods online now during the pandemic and I think that by now we know how to do it reasonably well.

Examinations are still some time in the future of course, but we still have four weeks of teaching to get through. I have seen anecdotal evidence from colleagues that attendance at lectures and tutorials has fallen rapidly since the mid-term break. I have heard directly from some students that they do not feel safe travelling to and from University and are wary of the large crowds on campus.

My own experience is that lecture attendance has held up reasonably well in my modules, but I deliver my lectures as webcasts and record them anyway so am quite happy if students want to watch them remotely or offline at a subsequent date. Many of them are taking other subjects which are taught in bigger classes which are all online anyway and in that case there is little incentive to come onto campus for one module when everything else is remote.

Simon Harris seems to have nailed his colours to the “return-to-campus” mast so even if there is a drastic surge in Covid-19 over the next few weeks I think the official line will be that we carry on teaching in person. Students however are probably more sensible that either politicians or University managers and will revert to online learning for all practical purposes by simply not coming to campus. And who could blame them?

The Hardest Problem

Posted in Cute Problems, Education, mathematics with tags , , , on November 19, 2021 by telescoper

The following Question, 16(b), is deemed to have been the hardest problem on the Maths Extension 2 paper of this year’s HSC (Higher School Certificate), which I think is the Australian Equivalent of the Leaving Certificate. You might find a question like this in the Applied Mathematics paper in the Leaving Certificate actually. Since it covers topics I’ve been teaching here in Maynooth for first-year students I thought I’d share it here.

I don’t think it’s all that hard really, probably because it’s really a physics problem (which I am supposed to know how to solve), but it does cover topics that tend to be treated separately in school maths (vectors and mechanics) which may be the reason it was found to be difficult.

Anyway, answers through the comments box please. Your time starts now.